Illinois lawmakers fail to replace their ethics watchdog

Illinois lawmakers fail to replace their ethics watchdog

The Illinois General Assembly is without a watchdog. The former legislative inspector general quit after saying she was just a paper tiger. Now lawmakers cannot agree on her replacement.

While Republicans and Democrats continue to spar over who will occupy the office that investigates complaints of state legislators breaking the law or abusing their authority, it raises the question: How much power does that office really hold? Regardless of who holds the title of legislative inspector general, the ability to better hold lawmakers accountable for meeting ethics standards will depend on increasing the independence of the office.

Process for replacing outgoing inspector

Republican commission members blame the stall on Democrats for supporting a candidate who wasn’t recommended by the outside search committee. Democrats on the commission favor David Risley, an investigator under Pope and director of public safety policy for former Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Republicans favor the search committee’s nominee, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Hartzler, who prosecuted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

The Legislative Ethics Commission must appoint an acting legislative inspector general within 45 days of the office’s vacancy to serve while a search committee – appointed by the House and Senate majority and minority leadership – recommends up to three candidates to the General Assembly to officially fill the vacancy. Following a recommendation, the candidate needs a three-fifths majority vote from the General Assembly to be appointed. Democrats hold the supermajority in the General Assembly, meaning they could approve their preferred candidate without any Republican votes.

Reforming investigative abilities of the office

The Office of Legislative Inspector General has struggled with resignations amid frustration over its lack of independence.

Before Pope, former Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter said she never would have taken the job had she known how powerless it would be: “Although I completed dozens of investigations without incident, in some significant matters, when I did find wrongdoing and sought to publish it, state legislators charged with serving on the Legislative Ethics Commission blocked me.”

Before Porter, former Legislative Inspector General Thomas Homer called for more independence and transparency when he left office in 2014.

The legislative inspector general is charged with investigating wrongdoing by members of the General Assembly and holding them accountable for ethics violations. Yet, the lack of independence given to the inspector general leaves the office with “no real power to effect change or shine a light on ethics violations,” according to Pope.

Pope’s criticism of the office follows the passage of Senate Bill 539, a bi-partisan ethics reform package meant to prevent instances of corruption in the legislature. However, SB 539 doesn’t go far enough.

While the new law allows the inspector general to investigate complaints against lawmakers related to their public office without approval from the Legislative Ethics Commission, Pope said the inspector general should likewise have authority to issue subpoenas and publish summary reports without the commission’s approval. Pope criticized the bill as having “no real teeth” without these and other provisions that would increase the authority and independence of the office.

Pope also wants lawmakers to reauthorize the office to investigate lawmaker conduct unrelated to their government service, a power that SB 539 rescinded.

Pope fielded a total of 47 allegations in 2021, initiating six investigations. Nine allegations were referred to another investigatory body and four allegations were referred to law enforcement agencies.

Illinois lawmakers should be wary of leaving the office vacant for too long. Likewise, they should consider the costs of allowing the office to be a figurehead rather than an independent watchdog.

Lawmakers can empower the legislative inspector general and continue to strengthen ethics reform in the legislature by authorizing the inspector general to issue subpoenas and publish summary reports without approval from the commission.

Whoever fills the vacancy will experience the same frustrations as their predecessors if they must get approval from the lawmakers to issue subpoenas or publish their reports – and the public needs uninhibited access to these findings of wrongdoing if they are to hold lawmakers accountable.

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